The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $110,000 for a yearlong study on how universities employ intersectionality or the idea that race, gender and class must be recorded as simultaneous categories of experience in data collection to truly understand complex configurations of inequities in higher education and other policy arenas.

Nancy López
Nancy López, professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology and director and co-founder of the Institute for the Study of "Race" & Social Justice.

The project titled, "Climate for Latino Students: Employing Intersectionality for Understanding Latino Student Success in Higher Education,” will seek to establish a gold standard for how universities track and understand the complexities of student social statuses including details on race, gender, class and ethnicity all together. Another important element of the study is recognizing that Latino ethnicity is a cultural heritage and not a race, which is a social status and position in society that has a visual component. This is why it is important to have a both-and approach for measuring race that includes how you identify and how others see you, which could be measured as street race — the race others assume you belong to based on a conglomeration of physical characteristics, such as skin color, facial features and hair texture, which research shows is often the basis of racial discrimination.

The research team includes co-principal investigators Dr. Nancy López, professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology and director and co-founder of the Institute for the Study of "Race" & Social Justice, Dr. Yasmiyn Irizarry, an associate professor at the University of Texas- Austin and lead primary investigator, and Dr. Edward Vargas, an associate professor at Arizona State University. The three have collaborated on several intersectionality research projects in the past few years, including a $1.5 million three-year Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant (2021-2025), where Dr. Nancy López is the lead primary investigator, to employ intersectionality in revising Office of Management and Budget (OMB) race and ethnicity federal guidelines, which impact all federal agencies in the country, including the U.S. Census. López and co-principal investigators submitted a consensus memo signed by over 100 people, mostly scholars of race, ethnicity and inequality, opposing OMB's initial proposals to ask about race and ethnicity in one question because regardless of intent, it will undermine our ability to illuminate racialized inequities with Hispanic communities and beyond; it also undermines civil rights monitoring, enforcement, and equity-minded policy development.

A hybrid convening of race scholars from multiple disciplines and OMB census in Albuquerque, June 2022.

“It is our hope that these grants result not only in new knowledge, publications and impactful research but also cultivating a community of practice among data users, academic leaders and communities that unless we are employing intersectionality as a normative principle, we will not know who we are serving. We just won’t,” López said. “Texas collects parent level of education as a required data point in any application for public institutions of higher education in the state. The University of California system collects detailed data on Hispanic ethnicity and research by Dr. AJ Alvero and his colleagues shows major inequities that become visible when you have this data. Yet, in New Mexico, we do not have these crucial questions for all application forms across the state.” 

The new study will begin with a literature review followed by a qualitative case study of how thirty colleges communicate information about Hispanic students to assess what state-of-the-art intersectional data collection looks like through an analysis of data boards and what improvements may be needed for intersectional analysis.

“Typically when we report student success metrics, we talk about race alone, or gender alone, or did you grow up in a family where no parent/legal guardian earned a four-year college degree in the U.S. or abroad when the student was 16 years of age (i.e. first-generation college status), but if we were employing intersectionality as inquiry and praxis, we would say that is not enough. We actually have to look at race, gender, class and ethnicity together,” López said. “I’ve done a lot of research published in Race, Ethnicity and Education, we find that if we look at the odds of six-year graduation for Latino students by looking at all those things together we make visible some inequalities that may not be visible otherwise.” 

Establishing a framework for collecting information from students is an important first step in ensuring higher education institutions have the details they need to better understand inequities on campus. For example, a college may publish data on what percentage of Latino students graduate, but within that diverse group, there may be inner group differences and trends that are unseen until disaggregated ethnicity data is examined alongside whether or not parents graduated from a four-year college and gender.

In their book, Latinos in the U.S. Diversity and Change, Dr. Rogelio Saenz and Dr. Marla Cristina Morales show that U.S.-born Colombian women currently have a higher level of educational attainment than U.S.-born Mexican women; however, there may be differences in the educational attainment of U.S.-born Black Colombian women in New York City who are first-generation college students and U.S.-born Black Mexican women who are first-generation college students in New Mexico that may be very different than their street race or other co-ethnic continuing generation college students. Without an intersectional approach to data collection, all of these women and the nuances in their backgrounds would be averaged into one large Latino group. 

Intersectionality can help break down stereotypes and make clear facts and configurations of inequality that may otherwise go unseen, thereby paving the way for solutions that can address those otherwise unseen inequities, López said.

“You don’t know who you are serving unless you are intersectional. You have no idea. To say that we’ve improved in Hispanic graduation rates without telling me how that breaks down with race, gender, ethnicity, and first-generation college students, I have no idea whose rate has improved,” she said. “New Mexico has the opportunity to reintroduce a bill that would collect parent level of education from preschool to graduate school. This data would help us illuminate where there are inequities that consider the simultaneity of race, gender and class and help attract funding and resources that will help us advance our ethical obligation to serve all students in our state.”

The Institute for the Study of "Race" & Social Justice was established in January 2009 with a vision to use inquiry and praxis to advance racial and intersectional justice. The Institute’s website houses many videos and an online presentation by Dr. López in 2021 at the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education available to those interested in learning more about intersectionality. The Institute is currently involved in several grant projects investigating identity and intersectionality, including a $3 million grant from the Science Foundation by Co-PIs: Dr. Nancy Lopez and Dr. Claudia Diaz Fuentes, UNM, and Dr. Ramona Hernandez, Lead PI for The City University of New Yor. If you would like to help contribute to the work of the Institute, including specifying that contributions are specifically for providing scholarships for students completing an interdisciplinary undergraduate or graduate certificate in race and social justice or cultivating a statewide community of practice through the New Mexico Race, Gender, Class Data Policy Consortium, donate here.